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From Chile, a toast

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"A la vida," says my small circle of friends, raising our cups of wine and pausing. The window behind me frames the jagged drop of one of the famous hills of Valparaíso, Chile, congested with vertically stacked, rainbow tin houses and a fairy-tale web of yellow streetlights that undulate down to the Pacific Ocean.

Though my friend's home is now remarkably clean and orderly, trash bags of fallen plaster, dust and broken plates are heaped together in the corner. The cracks in the walls suggest that the energy of the earth rose up and tried to claw its way through them, just as in most every building in the city. It's been several days now since the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900 ripped through this country. Only now, with the gradual restoration of cell phone service, electricity and Internet, we are beginning to understand what happened—not just to the horrifically mangled cities close to the epicenter but to ourselves.

If there is one constant in this country, it's humor. When I think of Chile, constant laughter—the dark, self-conscious Chilean wit—comes to mind first. I was dancing in the second story of a bar when an earthquake considerably more powerful than the one that destroyed Haiti struck our city. The laughter died down for a maximum of two minutes, 90 seconds of which included shaking. So tonight, with our glasses raised and eyes locked, I expect someone to make a wisecrack about what we've been through. It doesn't happen. Our eyes lose focus. We all turn inward.

The spontaneous, heavy pause of this toast is startling: Patricio stares past his glass, probably reflecting on the uncle whose entire town was wiped out. Where his home—so many homes—and the school one stood, there is nothing but sand.

Eric may be thinking of the grandmother who lost her house. I try not to worry about a friend from Concepción. Staring into the wine, I tell myself that of course she doesn't have Internet, and that's why she can't write to tell everybody she's OK. Still, I can't quiet the inner voice that repeats: "Where is Francisca, madre dios, dónde está La Pancha?"

But there is always another face to tragedy. In more extreme cases, it can create heroes, though there is something touching and perhaps even heroic to decency and kindness. When this miraculous city of lights was thrown into disorienting darkness, we threaded our way through dust, rubble and moonlight to a friend's house. I followed the sound of tambourine toward a night of dance and lilting Brazilian song. The warm hands of friends held mine in the dark or rested firmly on my shoulders or my waist, saying, "I am here for you." Even as the house's old wooden floors writhed like snakes in the aftershocks, I felt safe.

Glasses still raised, we pull ourselves back into the present. We look outward again and into each other's eyes. We see a deep joy borne of an appreciation that I have not known before. "A la vida!—to life!" we say once more.

The glasses clink.

Former Chatham County resident Maqui Ortiz now lives in Chile. She checked in from a bus ride into Santiago.

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